Policing the Social Crises of the 1960s

During the turbulent 1960s, a variety of social and legal forces renewed interest in police reform.

Racism and the police

To many residents living in the U.S. in the 1960s, the police symbolized a society that denied black citizens equal justice. Police actions ignited race riots in almost every city in the United States. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission, named after its chairperson, Otto Kerner) blamed the riots on racism. It stated that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” The Kerner Commission criticized law enforcement for the underrepresentation of blacks on police forces, brutality and abuse of power, and racial bias in the use of deadly force.

Police departments responded in several ways. First, they started police‐community relations programs to improve communication between the police and racial minority citizens. Second, departments initiated affirmative action programs to recruit and promote more blacks and women. Third, some big city police departments formulated written policies for the use of deadly force to reduce racial disparities in police shootings.

The due process revolution and the police

The Warren Court handed down a series of decisions between 1961 and 1969 that expanded citizens' due process rights and limited police powers. Some police administrators complained that Fourth and Fifth Amendment limits on police powers to question, arrest, search, and seize made it impossible for the police to fight crime. Civil liberties advocates heralded the revolution in criminal procedure as a way to ensure that the police treated those accused of crimes fairly.

Street crime and the federalization of law enforcement

Between 1960 and 1974, index crimes skyrocketed nationally from 3,363,700 to over 10 million per year. In addition to the upward spiral in crime, drug abuse spread from the ghettos to the white middle class. The federal government responded by passing crime control legislation and by creating the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). LEAA served as a conduit through which the federal government funneled millions of dollars into state and local police agencies. LEAA's Law Enforcement Education Program (LEEP) helped thousands of officers pay for a college education. LEAA money assisted in the development of hundreds of criminal justice programs in colleges and universities across the nation. Technological innovations, such as computers and modern communications devices, changed the ways in which police kept records and communicated with one another.

The resurgence of police unionism

Employment conditions in police departments worsened, and rank‐and‐file officers became alienated by the due process revolution. These developments led to an outburst of police unionism. Strikes of police became common in big cities. Unions won improvements in salaries and benefits for officers along with protections for them in disciplinary hearings. There was a redistribution of power within police departments. Police unions reduced the power of police administrators, who now are forced to consult with union officials over management issues.